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Ah, to be young, Rich and Insane. Actually, if recent hockey history tells us anything, the only thing better is to be young, rich and insane—and Lithuanian. You remember Lithuania: land of sugar beets, spurned communists and, most recently, a blissfully unhinged 21-year-old New York Islander defenseman named Darius Kasparaitis, who's spreading his idea of goodwill throughout the NHL.
But it's no small responsibility, this cultural-ambassador business. Everywhere you go in the New World—Detroit, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay—fans are going to assume, because they've never really seen one before, that all 3.7 million Lithuanians are exactly like you. Which is to say that after seeing Kasparaitis skate, NHL fans will figure that all Lithuanians howl, throw their arms in the air and yell "I love Amerika!" after scoring a goal...in pregame warmups.
Or that they find it "fun" to ram their heads into the largest opposing players they can find, even if those players happen to be named Lemieux and Lindros and haven't been hit so hard since the day they met their mothers' obstetricians.
Or that upon delivering said blow, they attempt to trash-talk in a sort of mutant hybrid of Lithuanian and English, as in "Go to hill, Hull!"
Or that off the ice, they promptly impale their cars on light poles, then walk away, high-fiving.
Or that as recreation, they lead police on drunken, high-speed chases.
Or that on off days, they routinely challenge the world record for Spending the Most Money in the Shortest Period of Time, Particularly on Items That Are Completely Unnecessary.
Poor Lithuania. So many problems—unemployment, soaring crime, no SportsCenter—and now this. And yet...and yet...maybe this second-year psycho with a head as hard as a week-old Big Mac isn't such a bad guy to have around. He's a great skater, a ferocious defender and a genuinely nice fellow, albeit one who sometimes shows affection by reshuffling your spinal cord. "Everyone loves the guy," says Islander left wing Derek King. So it's not true then? "Oh, sure it's true. He's reckless. He gets radar lock on a guy, lowers his head and goes for it. It's natural for him."
Not so the language. Considering that Kasparaitis's English consisted pretty much of "puck," "goal" and "major-misconduct penalty" when he came to America last year, he has made great progress. But it's hard to learn a new language, especially when you spend so much time sitting in those penalty boxes, with no TV and nothing to read. "Very hard," Kasparaitis says, relaxing after a practice at Nassau Coliseum. He's wearing a designer shorts-and-T-shirt ensemble, thick gold jewelry and, on his nose, a fresh gash the size of an anchovy. "First thing I hear: Hard player. Play dirty. Kick. Other teams not like me because I hit star players. I say, 'Bigger players easier to hit.' "
Anyway, he knew playing hockey would be hard. Knew it back when he ran wild for the Moscow Dynamo team and, in 1992, the Unified Team that beat Canada for the gold medal at the Olympics. That's when the NHL people, the men with the clipboards and stopwatches, started coming around, smiling their rich-guy smiles. Hell, it had always been hard. Hard is good. It was hard when, at 14, he signed with Dynamo out of tiny Elektrenai (pop. 25,000), where, early on, his working-class parents figured the one thing a hyperactive kid like him needed was a large wooden stick; it was hard when Lithuania said he couldn't play there anymore if he joined the Unified Team. Everything was hard, including his head, and that was fine. He was a hard guy—so hard that toward the end of a sloppy period during the 1991 World Junior Championships, he punched the goalie. His own goalie.